Learning to Count — The Playful Start Your Child Needs for Math Success

When you think of early math skills, counting is likely the first thing to come to mind. Young children love to sing counting songs. Many can count from 1 to 10, or even to 20. Counting is an exciting milestone, and your enthusiasm can make it a favorite activity. But, when does a child learn what numbers actually mean? How can you help your child make that mental leap from singing numbers to actually counting objects?

In this post, we are going to explore the skills your preschooler will develop on their way to true counting. Counting has many stages, and they will all happen at different times for each child. But there are ways that you can help. It may not be as easy as 1,2,3, but your child will definitely get there by practicing the following skills.

Children in music playgroup
Rote Counting

Rote counting is when your child can recite numbers, but they have not yet grasped their meaning.  That doesn’t mean that this skill is not important. Rote counting practice is where the order of numbers is established, and that is crucial to later understanding.

Unlike the alphabet, the order of numbers is essential to math knowledge. If you were to mix up the order of the classic alphabet song, it would have little effect on your child learning to read. However, your child understanding that one comes before two, and two before three, sets them up for all of their future math.

If you want to help your child learn to rote count, they simply need to hear it. Over and over. Rote counting has more to do with memory and language than math. Any time you have a chance to count things for your preschooler, do it out loud. Count crackers, raspberries, toy cars, stop signs. The more counting the better.

Our daughter has always loved raspberries at snack time. When she was between 1 and 2 years old, I began to count raspberries onto her fingertips. With each raspberry, I would say the number word for how many  were on her hand. After placing the first one I’d say, “One, you have one raspberry on your hand.” Then I’d place the next raspberry and say “Two, now you have two raspberries on your hand.” At the beginning, we’d stop at three. But eventually she wanted all the berries in her snack bowl on her hands. Then, as she would eat the berries from her fingers, we’d count back down until they were all gone. Then I’d say, “Zero raspberries!”

And, of course, don’t forget all of the fun counting songs: Five Little Monkeys, One Two Buckle My Shoe, Here is the Beehive, and so many more. These songs are great for adding finger play, giving representation to the numbers. These songs also provide a way to get your child up and moving. Movement and memory are linked[1], so get up and get silly with your preschooler. They’ll be singing their 1, 2, 3s in no time.

Child holding up two fingers
Rational Counting

As you and your preschooler count together, they will begin to understand that number words have meaning. Two dolls, two crackers, two blocks all have something in common. They need to see this representation of number, and see it often. Once they know what one, two, and three look like, they can begin to combine this with their rote counting skills to develop a new skill — rational counting.

Rational counting is when your child is able to count the objects in a set. Very small sets may be ‘counted’ with just a quick glance. However, larger sets need something more. Counting large sets requires an understanding of one-to-one correspondence.

Girl building block tower
One-to-One Correspondence

One-to-one correspondence is when your child is able to assign a number word to each object in a set, counting each object only once. When you point or touch each object as you count, you are demonstrating one-to-one correspondence.

Don’t worry if your child doesn’t catch on to this right away. It is a tricky skill. Developing one-to-one correspondence can take months or even a year. Work on it regularly during your child’s playtime, but don’t stress it to the point that activities lose their fun. You can set up engaging activities for your child using muffin tins or ice cube trays. Dice games are also useful in learning one-to-one correspondence[2]. But you can also just spend time counting.

If they are building a tower, count the blocks with them. When they are ready to knock the whole thing down, count them together again while cleaning up. Point to each block as you count, and then move the block to its bin to indicate that it is only counted once. If building is a favorite activity, you can record how many blocks high their towers reach each day. Then the next day, challenge them to beat their ‘high score’.

The main thing to remember is to keep it fun. Discover what interests your child and bring the math to them. Don’t make them stop what they are doing for ‘math time’. Show them how amazing math can be, and they will be excited to discover it.

Girl counting wooden blocks

Cardinality is the end game of counting, literally. The cardinality of a set is the quantity of that set. If you have seven strawberries, then that set of strawberries has a cardinality of seven[3].

If your child is practicing counting you may notice that they often continue counting up after they have reached the end of the set they are counting. They remember from rote counting practice what comes next, so even though they have nothing left to count, they will just keep going. This is totally ok. They are just still working on cardinality.

If every set your child counts has ten objects, when there is actually six or seven, just ask them to count with you again. Once you count them together, emphasize the correct total number in the set. But don’t push this if your child insists that there are actually ten blocks. Congratulate yourself on raising a strong-willed child and move on. Focus on smaller sets for a while and come back to it.

I promise, your child will learn how to count. Even the strong-willed ones. Once one-to-one correspondence and cardinality click, your child will have all the skills they need to count. Have fun practicing with your child, and they will enter the next stage of math learning with confidence and excitement.

Want to learn more about your child’s journey into early math? Download our free guide “10 Math Skills Your Child Can Master Before Kindergarten” and explore more play-based math learning.


[1] Madan CR, Singhal A. Using actions to enhance memory: effects of enactment, gestures, and exercise on human memory. Front Psychol. 2012;3:507. Published 2012 Nov 19. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00507

[2] Levin, V. One-to-One Correspondence Activities for Preschool. www.pre-kpages.com/one-to-one. 2019.

[3] Platas, Linda M. Counting on Counting, prek-math-te.stanford.edu/counting/counting-on-counting. 2017.